September 08, 2013

ANTIVIRAL (2012) - body horror and celebrity culture

(2012, Canada)

All hail to the new Cronenberg!

The near future, a young man enters an expensive-looking salon. By appointment only, he meets a strange young salesperson who gives him a long careful pitch. They talk about media celebrities and what it means to get closer to them. The punter makes his choice, receives an injection and leaves.

Dedicated fans of intensely famous people have found a new mania - the chance to feel like their idols... when they're ill. Anyone can now experience exactly the same viruses they've suffered, but without the actual harmful effects. A bizarre, wonderful idea at the core of this intriguing sci-fi thriller.

In this world, the obsession with celebrity has reached the point where TV cameras go inside them during operations, and news constantly reports their state of health. There are big announcements of new mass-produced viruses, as if they were brands of perfume. But fanatics always want what others don't have, and not everyone can afford the exclusive prices. Hence, the murky world of virus bootlegging...

Admittedly, I started watched this out of curiosity, with no great hopes. How often is talent genetically passed down from a famous parent? But I soon found Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg's first feature film, to be greatly rewarding and very different. While his father's 'body horror' stories were set in the near future, just far enough for science to have made a new breakthrough, they inevitably looked like 'now'. Antiviral looks sufficiently like the future.

David Cronenberg has also stopped making genre films. While Shivers, Rabid, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly are monuments in sci-fi horror, for over ten years he's stuck with drama. Quality films, but not the genre that originally set him apart. Brandon Cronenberg has begun with a body horror all of his own, and it's a treat to have a similar approach to satirical prediction as, say, Videodrome. But its completely in his own style, and a very different target.

I guess the other trait Antiviral shares with the films of Cronenberg Senior is that the story keeps a steady pace, without needing to resort to action scenes. I guess Gattaca would be a reasonable comparison for its tone, but without anywhere near the flashy budget. This is a great example of how good low-budget can now look, with sparingly-used digital effects, an antiseptic production design and precise 'future-look' cinematography.

The story is anchored by the creepy, extreme, but not exaggerated performance of Caleb Landry Jones, as the salesman who takes his work far too seriously. His pale skin is perfect for making him look really ill. I was recently struck by his resemblance to another intense young actor...

Udo Kier in Blood For Dracula
Malcolm McDowell is one of the familiar faces, but Nicholas Campbell is a welcome link to David Cronenberg's films, having appeared in The Dead Zone, The Brood and even Fast Company.

Antiviral demonstrates that sci-fi can still be original, inventive, predictive, weird and intelligent. And not need spaceships.

(I watched Antiviral on DVD, hired from LoveFilm. As a result, I've bought the region A blu-ray, which includes a commentary track and a 'making of' documentary.)

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